For the last decade or more I have defended the appropriate use of dog crates. But I believe I am seeing a disturbing trend that is tempting me to change my position.
There is no doubt that dog crates are immensely useful training aids for puppies and young dogs. And that crates provide an important place of refuge for puppies for short periods when they cannot be adequately supervised.
All dogs benefit from learning to be confined for short periods, because any dog may be forced into such confinement in an emergency. A crate-confident dog will not be traumatised by crate rest after an operation, or by being crated when you have to take refuge in a storm shelter for example.
Are Dog Crates Cruel?
I won’t go into all the benefits and principles of crate training here, as I’ve covered that in other articles. What I’m seeing that concerns me, is an increase in the number of people reporting behavioral problems in dogs that seem to be associated with long periods of crating.
In many cases it is clear that these dogs are being crated for a considerable proportion of each 24 hour period. And while crates are not intrinsically cruel, it’s clear that the misuse of a dog crate could amount to cruelty.
Dogs That Are Crated By Default
We are talking about dogs whose lives revolve around the crate. They are in fact crated ‘by default’. And it is easier for their owners to describe the times that the dog is let out of the crate than the time that the dog spends in there.
These dogs don’t have opportunity to relax outside of the crate and simply enjoy human companionship. They are let out for meals, or training, or walks, and then returned to the crate again.
The crate is their home, just as the hamster’s home is its cage. In my view, this is not a good way to raise a dog, and yet it seems that more people than ever, are keeping their dogs in cages.
Symptoms Of Excessive Crating
The symptoms of this excessive crating are often clear. Boredom and attention seeking behaviors including excessive chewing, biting, pawing, whining and jumping on owners, long past the puppy stage are common in dogs that are crated for too long.
In some dogs, neurotic behaviors such as self mutilating of paws, or spinning continuously, can occur. And many such dogs bark constantly. Much to the annoyance of the family and their neighbors.
Getting the dog out of the crate, and enabling the dog to spend time relaxing in your presence can result in improvements in general behavior that extend far beyond the time spent in the crate.
Your Social Dog
I think we forget sometimes just how highly social dogs are. And how important ‘touch’, and close contact, is to our dogs.
When it is not too hot, the natural preference of most well-adjusted dogs is for plenty of physical contact or close presence. They like to sleep pressed up against a family member. If you don’t have another dog, they will most likely want to sleep pressed up against you. Leaning on your legs, or lying on your feet.
Of course, all dogs have to learn that they cannot have access to you at all times. And teaching a dog to wait patiently on the other side of a barrier for short periods, while you watch TV or read a book, is a great idea. But isolation and constant physical separation should not be any dog’s default state.
If you keep dogs for a job or purpose, such as for a hunting companion, or livestock guardian, you may want them to live mainly outdoors. In this case you need to spend plenty of time with them, and ideally make sure they have another dog for company while they are kennelled. Otherwise, the question is not if, but when, nuisance behaviors such as boredom barking, will develop.
But I Have To Work!
It does seem that there are growing numbers of people that work full time and think it’s okay to crate their dog, all day, while they are at work. Often neglecting to consider the travel time to and from work, when calculating the hours that their dog is crated. Many of these dogs are then crated again, all night, while their owners are asleep.
Whenever I write on this topic, however tentatively, I get people commenting that I’m being unfair to those that work full time. They feel that I’m selfishly saying that no-one should have a dog unless they are retired, a stay-at-home parent, or work from home.
In fact I have written extensively on ways to combine full time work with raising a dog, but I recognise that it isn’t easy, or cheap. You’ll probably need paid help in the form of dog walkers or a day-care place.
I also recognize that for some people their lifestyle is simply not set up for raising a happy, healthy dog. And that for them, waiting until their circumstances change may be the only realistic option.
Alongside this trend for keeping dogs in crates, there also seems to be a lack of empathy for dogs that are denied bathroom breaks for eight hours or more during the day. This must be extremely distressing for many dogs. Just as it would be for many humans!
It’s vital that you arrange for your dog to be let out at intervals if you are forced to crate them for more than a few hours. Just like us, a dog’s bladder is more active during daylight hours, and no dog should be prevented from emptying theirs for hours on end.
So How Long Is Too Long?
I’ve given guidelines for crating many times both in my books and in my training courses. It seems that many people have got the message when it comes to crating small puppies, but common sense has flown out of the window once dogs hit six months of age or so. And the expectations placed on many adult dogs are completely inappropriate.
Here are some principles here that need to be understood, and we need to spread the message more widely.
- Half of a life spent in a cage is not a good life
- Even adult dogs have a right to bathroom breaks
- Not everyone can offer a dog a good life
Half A Lifetime In A Cage?
Let’s be honest with ourselves. A dog crate is a cage. And a pretty small cage at that. The first principle is that no dog should be spending half of their lifetime in that cage.
If your dog spends 8-9 hours at night in a crate that leaves no more than 3-4 hours per day in a crate. Preferably not all at once. And preferably much less!
Let’s spread the word that dogs should not be spending more than a couple of hours a day in a crate.
As well as spreading this message, I’d like to see crate manufacturers state clearly on their products that they are not suitable containers for housing dogs for hours on end. But I suspect that is not going to happen any time soon.
Give a dog a break!
Dogs need to pee more often during the day. Sometimes dogs get upset stomachs. To be prevented from accessing toilet facilities for eight hours or more is extremely unkind. I hesitate to be too judgemental because I think that deters people from seeking help, but some would call this abuse.
If you leave your dog alone for more than four hours on a regular basis, you need a dog safe room with some puppy pads for your dog to pee on if they cannot wait until your return. Or someone to let the dog out into the yard part way through the day.
Let’s spread the word that, apart from night-time, no dog should ever spend more than four hours in a crate without a bathroom break and a chance to stretch their legs and run around for a while.
Not everyone can give a dog a good life
This may seem very harsh and unfair, but I believe, owning a dog is a privilege, not a right and that there is a duty of care that every dog owner should be able to meet.
Giving a dog a good life includes spending time with them and avoiding long periods of incarceration. If this isn’t how your life works right now, then now might not be the right time for you to own a dog.
Should dog crates be banned?
Five years ago I would have said definitely NO! Crates are wonderful tools.
I would have said that unkind people will always find ways to be unkind, and that banning the tools they use won’t stop them.
I would also have said that education not legislation is the answer.
But now, I am on the fence.
I am seeing so much excessive crating that it really worries me. And these are not unkind people. They don’t want their dog to be distressed. But the message about appropriate use of crates does not seem to be getting through.
With some provisos (transport and medical reasons) the use of crates is now illegal in some European countries such as Sweden and Finland, and restricted in others.
Should these restrictions apply in the USA, UK, and other countries where crating for long periods is more widespread?
I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to know what you think – please leave a comment below!
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